audio

Google Podcasts

Without an enormous amount of fanfare, Google yesterday launched Google Podcasts for Android yesterday, with the possibility of being game changing. I’ve long argued that for the Android/iOS podcasting gap to be closed, Google needed to get involved and create a generic app.

Apple Podcasts is a pre-installed app on every iPhone sold, and with strong backing of podcasts from the outset via the iTunes store, Apple users have consumed podcasts at a far greater rate than Android. Even today, with iOS share slipping slightly, the proportion of podcasts consumed by iOS devices is massively out of kilter with smartphone ownership. In most countries in the world, there is a higher Android user base than iOS.

All of this means that, unless we somehow infer that your choice of smartphone is a strong indicator for how you listen to audio, then there is a massive untapped Android market out there.

Previously Google has only played a little in the podcast arena. They added podcasts to Google Play Music. But only in the US. And podcasters themselves had to add their podcasts into Google Play Music themselves. A combination of those two things meant that that ex-US podcasters who wanted to list their podcast with Google had to go out of their way to employ VPNs to even get their podcast registered. Furthermore, Google Play Music cached audio meaning that podcasters couldn’t see a comprehensive picture of their podcasts’ performance across a range of platforms. Furthermore, newer technologies like dynamic advertising wasn’t possible. The advert baked into the podcast when it was captured by Google remained there in perpetuity.

Google just wasn’t taking podcasts seriously. But that was obviously changing and when Pacific Content published their series of articles on Google’s new podcasting drive earlier this year, things Google had been doing began to come to light. Although the scale of podcasting continues to grow, with more people and organisations releasing more podcasts, and more revenues being derived from them, it was perhaps the growing importance of audio to Google itself that has really pushed things along. Google’s Home and Home Mini devices have been massive sellers, with the company locked in a battle with Amazon’s Echo for grabbing market share in Voice (Despite Apple’s Siri being first to market, Apple is playing a massive catch-up game in this market).

Voice control has come to be an important way we interact with technology with both our phones and our devices in our smart homes. Machine learning has meant that voice comprehension and contextual analysis has rapidly improved. And from there music and speech are perhaps growing in importance. So podcasts fit in neatly.

All of this explains why Google’s new podcast app, isn’t actually an app at all. It’s really a view of Google Assistant. For quite a while now, you’ve been able to ask your Google Home device or your phone to play a podcast. This “app” therefore just makes this a little cleaner.

In fact the app is actually pretty basic. The average podcast app you can download on the Play store is likelier to be much better featured than Google Podcasts. Even something as basic as downloading podcasts for offline listening – the absolute bare minimum you need for any podcast app – requires you to change permissions in a truly bizarre way. Instead of getting a pop up permissions dialog box as you’d expect from recent Android iterations, you’re taken to a user-unfriendly App info page where you have to choose Permissions and then turn on Storage. It really isn’t very obvious, and I suspect many will fall at the first hurdle.

The rest of the app is very basic. The “Top Podcasts” are all very obvious and popular US ones: This American Life, Serial etc. And then all the usual suspects are in each of the category selections. The only two non-US podcasts I saw were the BBC’s World Cup Daily and The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast. There was a Five Live section for me, which may have been because I subscribed to a Five Live podcast through the app in testing.

Now to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a terrible idea to highlight the podcasting big hitters. If you’re just discovering podcasts, then you probably want to listen to all the favourites. And equally, I don’t really know of any app that is very smart at selecting podcasts for you. Indeed, for all it’s revered elsewhere, I find even Netflix misses much more than it hits with selections for me.

Obviously a key benefit that Google Podcasts does have is that if you start listening on, say, your Google Home Mini and then leave your house and listen via your phone, you can carry on where you left off. But in the time I’ve tried the app, I’m unlikely to leave PocketCasts as my podcasting app of choice, which also lets me move between phone and its desktop web app. For smart speakers, I tend to use Cast to keep things in sync and stay on top of which episodes of which podcasts I’ve listened to. It has other much deeper functionality that Google’s offering lacks. This is probably purposeful on Google’s part, and other app developers will probably be relieved.

None of this is to say that Google Podcasts isn’t very important. Any podcast creators should build links to Google Podcasts as soon as possible, include their badges and generally make sure they’re listed correctly. Podnews has a decent FAQ about what you need to do. At the very least, when people share a podcast socially, they can now include a Google URL as well as an iTunes one (NB. They should still really share a link to a website where a range of options are available including the podcast’s unique RSS feed).

However, I’m not sure this is going to be quite the game changer it might have beene. I don’t see the app being pre-installed on phones, and I suspect that most of those who’ve installed already are those who are already very familiar with podcasts. Yes, it’s true that the podcast functionality will be pre-installed in that it forms part of Google Assistant. But it’s not clear that Google is pushing a page as a destination, in the way you might go to the YouTube homepage to see what new videos have been published, or you would open Spotify to purposefully listen to music.

That said, podcast usage is going up – there are some good global numbers in the most recent Reuters Digital News report (Interestingly, the UK is at the lower end of the range with 18% listening to podcasts a month. In South Korea for instance, it’s 58%!), and this initiative can’t but help drive that listening upwards.

One really interesting area Google is planning to tackle is the idea of creating subtitles (or captions) for podcasts using Google’s AI. Relatively few podcasts have transcripts of their programmes, and that makes searching the content within them very hard. If Google can auto-create these, as it does for many YouTube videos, then that makes the power of its search that much better even if the original podcast doesn’t have good meta-data. Users could jump straight to relevant section within a podcast. However this does raise questions of accuracy, and perhaps more so, intellectual property in ownership of those virtual transcripts (Cf All the arguments surrounding Google’s book-scanning initiatives). That all said, I’m unaware of anyone raising those issue with YouTube videos.

In summary then, a good first proper move by Google. They’re going to treat podcasts as essentially search assets, but using their Assistant to ensure that you keep track of what you have and haven’t listened to. However, I wouldn’t expect a significant overnight increase in the number of podcasts served. But podcasting overall continues to see steady growth, and this will undoubtedly help.

Podcasts and Paywalls

There seems to be something of a brouhaha* just now in podcasting land over the idea that some podcasts might live behind a paywall, and I thought it was worth thinking about that a little more.

It was reported at the end of last week, that Amy Schumer has signed a $1m deal with Spotify to make a podcast for them. Furthermore, this is likely to be first of many comedy podcasts that the audio streaming business is looking to create.

This created a certain amount of uproar. Nicholas Quah (of Hotpod) writing for Vulture asked “How Will Amy Schumer’s Huge Spotify Deal Change the Podcast Industry?

Meanwhile Kevin Goldberg at Discoverpod thinks it could be bad for future podcast distribution. While examining the logic behind such costs, Goldberg fears a little for the medium:

“Podcasts were created to be openly distributed through an RSS feed. Exclusivity ultimately threatens one of the basic tenets of podcasts. Though I think most listeners realized this free ride wouldn’t last forever — and with every “Netflix for podcasts” analogy I see online in my heart I knew it as well — it’s still a bit upsetting to see the stake in the ground (again, I’m assuming Schumer’s new podcast will only be available on Spotify).”

What I would say is that all that makes a piece of audio a “podcast” is its RSS delivery mechanism. Yes, there have been great leaps in the range and quality of audio production, driven in large part by the explosion of podcasts. But there has always been a wide range of audio available, and different delivery mechanisms for that audio. An open RSS feed is only one.

The earliest forms were cylinders, shellac discs (e.g. for 78 rpm records), and via radio stations. In time, a variety of improved delivery types became available until today’s landscape which includes broadcast (analogue and digital), physical media, streaming and downloads – some of it free, and some of it behind paywalls of varying types. Audiences have become more used to listening on demand, but the models remain varied.

We may listen for free, programming supported by advertising (or a licence fee or a donation). Or we pay a subscription to “rent” access to the audio. In yet other instances, we buy our own copies of the media – either physical or download.

Changing tastes, fashions and business models mean that that distribution methods ebb and flow.

Podcasts tend to fall into the category of downloads or streams that are often advertising supported. But by no means are they alone.

Comedy is a particularly interesting area to explore, because disseminating comedy – and comedy audio in particular – has a long a varied history. Once upon a time, you would have had to go and see a comedian to hear them. Until well into the last century, vaudeville and music halls reigned with their variety acts including comedians. Bigger names toured countries and built followings. They rose up the bill, and could demand bigger cuts from houses.

Beyond that, radio helped them build out their popularity. Radio shows helped make some comedians household names. Before the advent of television, they might have made a few films to cash in on their success, but you could expect radio and variety shows to provide the bulk of their income.

Yet the recording industry played a role from the outset. Even as Thomas Edison was introducing his cylinders to an eager public, he was recording perhaps the first “comedy albums” with Cal Stewart and his Uncle Josh recordings.

As recordings moved to disc, comedy records went with them, and during the post-war period as recorded music grew significantly in popularity, comedians worked in the medium. There were “party records” – with material too blue or risque to be broadcast anywhere that might be sold under the counter. But beyond them, popular comedians of the time recorded albums. Among them Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Bill Hicks and Eddie Murphy.

These albums sold in great numbers; these comedians effectively working “behind a paywall.”

We don’t know yet what Spotify will do with their Amy Schumer programme. It may well remain a Spotify exclusive – another reason for you to subscribe to Spotify. Perhaps it will be Spotify exclusive for a limited period of time before being made available on every platform – ‘windowing’ in the parlance. There may or may not be advertising. Time will tell.

But in effect, this is no different to a record label in years gone by signing a comedian up to release a comedy album. The form may be different; the material more contemporaneous. However, the similarities are there.

And this is hardly unique. In 2015, Russell Brand did an exclusive deal with Audioboom. He got payed a sum that may have been adjacent to the $1m Schumer is reportedly getting.

Amazon’s Audible has been busy signing up dozens of exclusives to offer as part of its membership scheme. The most successful so far, has perhaps been Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect, which was kept exclusively on the Amazon platform for 6 months before becoming more widely available on podcast platforms. Other Audible exclusives (free to subscriber programming, as distinct from their regular audiobooks) have largely remained on the Audible platform alone.

Ricky Gervais, who did a lot to popularise podcasts back when The Guardian was a backer of his early podcast series, later moved the show behind a paywall by selling episodes in the ‘audiobooks’ section of the iTunes store. More recently he has been making series for US satellite radio broadcaster Sirius XM. These episodes are made available free to Sirius XM subscribers, but again are paid-for episodes for everyone else.

Many of Slate’s podcasts contain extra segments exclusive to paying Slate Plus subscribers. In the case of the popular Slow Burn podcast, entire additional episodes were exclusive to those subscribers.

Many podcasters who use donation funding as part of their model record exclusive episodes for those backers (including The Cycling Podcast, for which I am a producer). Often Patreon is used a way to facilitate this.

All of these are legitimate business models, and it’s not really clear to me why anyone would worry. Generally speaking the biggest audiences will only be available free to air as regular RSS feeds that will work across all podcatching software. Even going ‘app-exclusive’, will instantly see audiences fall. Recall that something like 55-60% of podcast listening still comes from Apple apps. It’s instructive to see that the music industry has tended to move away from significant platform exclusives.

Once you add paywalls, then potential audiences fall. On the other hand, the economics may make sense for the podcast’s producers or a specific platform.

On the most recent Recode Media with Peter Kafka podcast, 99 Per Cent Invisible’s Roman Mars said he doesn’t want to go down the subscription podcast route.

“Right now, I don’t think we have the overall mass to support that change,” Mars said. “We had 70 years of broadcast television to get to a point where we could hone it to people’s [needs]: They need it in their lives and pay a certain amount so they can have ‘The Sopranos.’ I don’t think we’ve had that period of time with podcasts.”

Except, I don’t think that’s true. We’ve been selling comedy since the dawn of recorded music, while also making it available free of charge, via radio broadcasts and latterly podcasts.

If paywalls are too confusing, then they will fail. But particularly with comedy, history suggests otherwise.

I do appreciate that, as with Netflix, a certain amount of this is just stealing a march on competitors and gaining market share at cost. Recall that Netflix is not yet in profit. They become profitable when they have enough subscribers to sustain their investment in programming. They’ve made a bet that they will reach this tipping point. Similarly, Spotify is not yet profitable. They too are chasing increased subscriber numbers in the hope of reducing costs overall. In the meantime, they are looking for a means to drive those subscribers.

In general, I would always want my podcast to reach the widest possible audience. Podcasting is still in a growth phase after all. Think of all those people who have yet to discover podcasts (particularly Android phone users). But if someone wants to go subscription only, then that’s for them. And I don’t think it damages podcasting overall.

I would argue that they’re probably not podcasts however.

*What an excellent word.

**Netflix doesn’t release ratings, but I think I’m on safe ground here, if you look within countries

Google and Podcasts – Stuck in Draft #3

This is another of my Stuck in Drafts series – where I dig into things I had largely written months or even years ago – and get around to publishing them. This one is a little unusual in that it was penned back in April 2016, and I’ve left it alone. However, I’ve added some extra notes detailing where things have moved on a little, or where they haven’t.

So finally, months after first announcing that they were coming, podcasts have landed at Google Play Music – the inelegantly named platform that Google uses to distribute audio.

As a matter of fact, podcasts have arrived in the US and Canada. For the rest of us, they’re a way off. Nobody quite knows how far off though. December 2017 update: They’re still now here.

So if you live in North America, or can fire up a VPN to make it look like you live in North America, you get a new look Google Play Music website. Actually, everyone gets a new look GPM (can I shorten it to that?) because they’ve adopted a new logo.

Regular readers will know that I use GPM for my general music playing. As well as offering a music store, and a Spotify-a-like £9.99 all-you-can-eat streaming service, they allow you to store your music collection of up to 50,000 tracks in the cloud.

GPM has also adopted Songza quite widely. In the US, you can listen to free “radio” services based on time of day, location and genre of music. Outside the US, these stations are only available to paid subscribers, but they’re smart and are well tailored to what you might be looking for – Party Music on a Friday night, or Soundtracks to get through the work day.

As well as gaining an extra tab on the left labelled Podcasts, North American users now also have a choice of podcast playlists/”radio stations. These might be labelled “Learning Something New” or “Getting Lost in a Story,” and pull together individual episodes of podcasts into a playlist of thematically related material.

You can also subscribe to podcasts as you do regularly with other providers. Discovery of podcasts remains a major issue, with often static iTunes charts being the key way to surface new material. But the range and breadth of podcasts being made is far wider than those charts often show users. So the opportunity for Google to point listeners in new podcasts directions is not to be under-estimated.

That all said, I was a little underwhelmed by the whole thing, and it felt a little like a soft-launch of a product. So while I might be sitting in the UK slightly miffed at not being able to shift to a Google platform just yet, I’m not sure I’d be ready to anyway.

As ever, the real issue with a potentially massive inventory is finding a way to reveal your wares to customers in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. It’s the same issue that iTunes and Netflix have, and Google hasn’t cracked this nut yet.

Initially you see just a handful of podcasts available. A drop-down reveals a selection of familiar categorisations, each of which reveals a further limited selections of offerings within those categories.

What you quickly notice is that the vast majority of podcasts visible are American.

This is perhaps unsurprising for a number of reasons:

– The majority of podcasts in English are probably American
– The new service is targeted at North Americans
– The portal for podcasters to list their podcasts is geo-blocked to North American IP addresses

Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t workarounds including keen non-American podcasters using VPNs to get their shows listed, but it certainly mitigates against the wider world.

Given that most podcasts find significant audiences in North America, that means that American users probably aren’t in a position to migrate to Google from their current suppliers unless they’re happy to have an incomplete experience.

But Google is perhaps looking at the bigger picture and not really trying to replace services that already exist. I couldn’t say with any certainty that I will be ditching PocketCasts as my preferred podcasting solution anytime soon, even if podcasts are made available in the UK, and the “catalogue” is as complete as iTunes’/PocketCasts one one is.

The bigger opportunity is for those who don’t currently listen to podcasts, and find the situation complicated and confusing. For those new users, this might be open up a new world of audio.

And putting podcasts into search could be massive. If a Google search reveals a relevant episode of a podcast, that could be a massive driver of discovery and growth. With speech to text improving all the time, Google might have the ability to index audio and deliver programmes in a smart way.

December 2017 addendum: Podcasts still haven’t found their way into Google Play Music, but there are rumours afoot that that GPM is due a major upgrade and perhaps podcasts will form part of that. There remains a massive opportunity for podcasts were Google to place a standard app on its phones as part of the Android ecosystem. But that’s obviously also a threat for third-party podcast providers.

What Google does now do is surface podcasts in search. If you ask something like a Google Home Mini to play a podcast, it can do so. The same on your phone. It’ll remember where you are and let you continue. It’s by no means a perfect experience, but Google is at least surfacing podcasts for its users, and that can only help even if they’re not really providing a very good overall experience.

This topic deserves a bigger return to it in 2018.

Tour de France 2017 Podcasts

Valverde and Quintana ahead of the Sky train including Peter Kennaugh, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at the 2015 Tour de France
At the 2015 Tour

Le Tour is back underway, and while I’m sadly not planning to go and visit this year, I am of course closely watching TV, listening to the radio and podcasts and following all the action on Twitter.

And of course, I’m helping out with The Cycling Podcast, the finest podcast covering cycling! Listen in your favourite podcast app!

I’ve been making a few of the KM0 feature podcasts (KM0 indicates the point at which the race actually starts each day, following a warm-up of a few kilometres out of the start town).

Here’s on on the environment and the Tour, with its rolling circus of 2,000 vehicles:

Here’s one on the breakaway kings of this year’s Tour, Wanty-Groupe Gobert, who have been putting their riders in most of the breaks, however much they may be doomed to failure:

And here’s my favourite so far, on Australian Phil Anderson, and in particular his yellow jersey win in the Pyrenees in 1981.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

RAJAR MIDAS – Winter 2016

It has been a while since I’ve properly looked at RAJAR’s MIDAS survey, and it really does bear some close attention because it gives the most accurate picture of audio consumption in the UK right now.

As a reminder, MIDAS is a separate survey to the main RAJAR measurement, in which over 2,000 respondents are asked in detail about their audio listening habits by platforms, location, device and who they’re with.

It’s there to provide additional listening information and generally add ‘colour’ to the main RAJAR survey. Over time it allows some tracking in behavioural changes.

The full dataset is only made available to RAJAR subscribers, but RAJAR publishes a very good summary, and this provides plenty to get stuck into.

The key measure is Audio Share – the percentage of time spent listening to various types of audio. This is also known as “Share of Ear”, although I believe this is trademarked by Edison Research who carry out similar research in this area in the US.

Of course, simply saying “audio” is too simplistic because, for example, watching YouTube music videos is undoubtably a competitor to traditional audio sources for some audiences. So MIDAS does measure video as well as audio, although in most of the charts below, visual media has been excluded.

Share of Audio % (excluding visual)

The topline results show that live radio accounts for 76% of all audio consumption. The next closest category is digital music (downloads) at 9%. To put this in context, here is how radio’s share has performed over the most recent MIDAS surveys:

Careful examination of this data would seem to suggest a few things:

  • Radio remains vastly important in the audio world. While the last couple of MIDAS releases showed it declining a touch, it seems to have bounced back this time around. I’d be surprised if it didn’t fall some more over time since there are such strong radio competitors. But there’s still only one gorilla in this room.
  • Online Music Streaming (OMS in the above chart – e.g. Spotify, Apple Music) is growing. They seem to be growing as digital music tracks and CD listening is declining. Do you pay 99p at iTunes for a track or £9.99 a month for as much as you like? Consumers are shifting towards the latter.
  • Listen again is growing a bit, while podcasts remain static. The latter in particular definitely suggests something different in the UK, from say, the US.
  • Vinyl and cassette is basically static (although the graph doesn’t really show that it was at less than 1% at the start of the period displayed). You can safely treat all those news stories about vinyl’s resurgence as the hyperbole they truly are. Yes, a few albums are being sold as nice to have items, but in the scheme of things, they don’t amount to much in behavioural changes.

Now this chart doesn’t show the whole story. As I say, only RAJAR subscribers get the full dataset of MIDAS, but RAJAR publishes different aspects of the data in each release. And this time around they’ve published the demographic breakdown of listening. Indeed I think some of this has been presented at the Salon de la Radio in Paris over the last couple of days.

This shows some really clear differences by age group.

  • 15-24s spend 51% of their time listening to the radio (the green bar above) compared with 88% of 55+’s time. Radio is still the clear leader, but in time spent listening there is a competitor on the block.
  • Online Music Streaming is vastly more popular amongst 15-24s than other demographic groups. 15-24s spend 21% of their audio time on these services. This drops to just 9% for 25-34s and right down to 1% for 55+. This is as clear a behavioural change by age as you’re likely to see.
  • If you’d asked me to predict which age group spends the biggest proportion of their time listening to CDs, I have definitely said it was an older group. But in fact, the actual biggest group is 15-24s! Are they borrowing others music, or perhaps they can’t yet afford a Spotify subscription?
  • Podcasts are most popular amongst 24-34s, spending significantly more time than other age groups.

One thing to be careful of is that these are percentages within each age group. It’s important to note that overall volume of time spent listening will be different by different groups. So amongst CD listening, 5% off 55+ listening might be significantly more hours than 6% of 15-24s (the data doesn’t let us see).

What will be interesting to see is future growth of streaming. While there are free/bundeled streaming options – notably Spotify, or Amazon’s free offering for Prime members – there is surely a top limit to those prepared to pay £9.99 a month for music? There are ways to reduce the cost including family plans and logins shared with others; and some will happily bounce around different services taking advantage of free three month trials, creating new disposable email accounts as necessary. But continued growth within the UK market still isn’t clear.

Hours isn’t the whole story of course, and it’s worth looking at reach too. That shows that usage is much closer for most of the platforms. So while 90% of 55+ listen to the radio accounting for 88% of their listening, 82% of 15-24s listen to the radio but it accounts for just 51% of their listening.

Audio Reach % By Age Group

A couple of other charts. Ever wonder what people are doing when they listen to the radio?

Live Radio by Activity

Most radio presenters will recall being told to broadcast as though they were speaking to a single listener. There’s a good reason for that. A slight majority of radio listening is done alone, although this changes for younger listeners who listen more socially.

Live Radio by Who Listened With

Other things of note:

  • While most services are split evenly by sex, podcasts are notable for being significantly more male than female – 61% v 39%.
  • While laptops and tablets are used a lot for live radio, on smartphones the majority of use is for digital tracks and on demand audio.

There’s more in the original presentation which you can download on the RAJAR website.

Source RAJAR/IpsosMori. Sample 2,191. Conducted November 2016.

Farewell to the Arqiva Awards; the Continued Fragmentation of the UK Radio Industry

Towards the end of last year we learned that after 21 years, the Arqiva Radio Awards (previously the CRCA Awards) have now come to an end. The awards, which were contested by commercial radio alone, have been a mainstay of the calendar for many years now. Many might recall that in years gone by when the awards were held during the late afternoon and early evening, following a members’ conference, and they’d often then be followed by the notorious Xtracts party – a bus being laid on to transport party goers from one event to the next.

But this isn’t just sadness for bygone years of drunken revelry amongst industry peers; it’s one fewer opportunity for staff at commercial radio stations to receive plaudits from their colleagues. Awards aren’t just there to proudly display in receptions and boardrooms; they’re there to make staff at stations feel special – important in an industry that nobody really enters to get rich.

RadioCentre will continue to support the newly launched Arias, and it looks like the Radio Academy will be consulting to make changes next year, so that the BBC won’t necessarily be quite as dominant. I wish these new awards well.

However it’s curious to read from James Cridland that Arqiva itself was happy to carry on sponsoring the awards. Sadly, that suggests that there continue to be significant differences of opinion in how these awards should be run within the radio industry itself. Recall that Wireless Group and UKRD already declined to enter the awards.

Earlier last year, I noted – only slightly facetiously – that Sound Women appeared to be the only UK radio organisation supported by the wider UK radio industry.

With Sound Women winding down operations, I’m not sure that there’s a single organisation or body that covers the entire UK radio spectrum. RAJAR is perhaps the closest, although many smaller stations either can’t afford RAJAR, or don’t find that it offers them value for money.

And it’s not as though usurpers to radio’s crown are going anywhere: Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Google are all continuing to invest millions into audio, and we are unquestionably seeing behavioural changes at the younger end of the market.

I’m not suggesting that the presence or absence of an awards ceremony will make much difference in stopping that growth. But it’s indicative of an industry that’s not prepared to unite when it’s useful. Awards do reward excellence in radio and audio; and excellent audio is surely critical to the future of the medium.

The Cycling Podcast Review of the Year 2016

I seem to have been a little backwards in coming forwards with details of this edition of The Cycling Podcast put together by yours truly and published over the Christmas period.

Obviously it won’t be of enormous interest if you don’t follow professional cycling, and you’ll miss all the running jokes if you haven’t listened to previous episodes of the programme. And if you do follow cycling, and already listen to The Cycling Podcast, then you should have already heard it.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of effort went into making this, since we all know that searching for audio clips is relatively slow going. You can’t easily “scrub” it as you would video.

TechCon 2016 – The Return

One of the casualties of the changes surrounding the Radio Academy was that TechCon, the one day conference about radio and audio technology, fell by the wayside.

Fortunately, it was gamely picked up by Ann Charles, Aradhna Tayal and Andy Buckingham, who took the conference independent.

Running a conference is not for the faint-hearted, with real costs incurred for things like the venue hire, kit, catering and dull things like insurance. These are largely upfront costs before you’ve sold any tickets. And of course the more specialist a conference is, the more limited your potential audience might be. In a media landscape that has seen a reduction in the number of sizeable radio players, that can mean that it’s challenging to sell tickets.

I spoke to a colleague recently who attended another specialist conference, and they noted that almost the entire audience was made up of speakers and panelists.

So congratulations to the team for filling the room with more than 150 people, and thanks too to the sponsors of the event – notably Broadcast Bionics, Arqiva, KTN, RCS and the IET.

By its very nature, TechCon can get technical – and so it did. But never so much that an interested layperson couldn’t understand what was being talked about. While I won’t list every session from the day, in no particular order, here are some of the great takeaways I came away with:

  • The science of acoustics and machine learning is utterly fascinating. This is the sort of work that allows Amazon Alexa, OK Google or Siri to work as well as they do. Cleopatra Pike and Amy Beeston from the Universities of St Andrews and Sheffield, talked about the science and some of the challenges of this kind of automation, and about how machine learning is driving a lot of this. And if we move to object based radio, as Dave Walters talked about, there’s the possibility of this becoming a little easier.
  • There is no definitive conclusion on the future of radio according to research conducted by Nicky Birch of Rosina Sounds for the British Library. The report interviewed a lot of people, and while change is clearly afoot, nobody really knows what that’ll mean who how fast it will happen.
  • Some van drivers have illegal gizmos that they plug into their vehicles to block GPS. This is primarily to prevent their employers being able to track them with built-in GPS trackers. But Simon Mason of Arqiva pointed out that this one of many problems they face when trying to keep transmitters like the national DAB network in sync with one another. More generally he talked about satellite navigation solutions – a timely talk since the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, is due to begin operations by the end of this year. That brings three systems to European users, sitting alongside the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems.
  • We heard lots about the development of in-car audio. One interesting perspective is how the likes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are received by different car manufacturers. Because they essentially offer a single solution to every vehicle, a luxury car manufacturer is no longer able to differentiate themselves from a budget car manufacturer. Everybody gets the same experience. We also saw a potentially scary video of self-driving cars handling a junction autonomously (similar to this video). It’s going to take a little getting used to.
  • Nigel Fry of the BBC World Service, told us how hard it is to broadcast to countries where governments might prefer you not to broadcast.
  • It’s possible to broadcast a radio station making use only of the sun. Even in London! Issa Kassimu of Internews, who is powering such a station in South Sudan, ran us through some calculations. The key point is that you do have to factor in the wattage of your kettle. Everyone wants a cuppa after all!
  • Ofcom is looking forward to licencing more small-scale DAB licences – although it may be a few months before they start to invite applications.
  • To broadcast the (re) launch of Virgin Radio from a moving train, Phil Critchlow of TBI and colleagues from Vipranet used twelve different 3G and 4G connections from four network operators. That still doesn’t help for some cuttings and tunnels, and probably isn’t enough for you to stream Netflix either!
  • Everyone loves binaural. I know you know I know this, but Chris Pike of BBC R&D was able to demo this live with wireless headphones. He played some audio from one of the two binaural productions broadcast a year or so ago (you may recall I went to an event for one of these). We also got to hear some of the audio from the BBC’s VR “Taster” experiment, The Turning Forest, viewable in Google Daydream, Google’s VR application.

And that’s without me mentioning Software Defined Radio, making and broadcasting radio using only cheap phones, and building new studios in tight confines when you have a hatful of new national speech services to launch!

To anyone who attended and couldn’t ask a question because there was just so much to get through – apologies. That was probably my fault as I was doing my best to keep everything running to schedule. One of the downsides of running a conference in a theatre is that, at the end of the day, a production wants the theatre back to put on a show. So we had a very tight turnaround. (That’s also why I wasn’t live Tweeting as I ordinarily would)

I’m sure that the conference will be back next year, so head over to the TechCon website and add yourself to the list!

David Lloyd has a nice writeup of the day, Arqiva has also written about the event, and Trevor Dann features the conference in this week’s RadioToday Podcast.

See you there next year!

Diversity in Radio

portrait

Yesterday, two things happened.

I got an email from Sound Women telling me that the organisation will be closing down at the end of next year.

And I went to a radio and audio conference in London.

I’ll explain the link in a minute. But let’s just say for the moment, that I learnt a new word yesterday too: manel.

It’s sad news that Sound Women is closing, because I think it’s fair to say that it has achieved a lot in the five years of its existence. As their blog explains, it’s a consequence of time (of their volunteers) and resources that has led to the decision.

What’s clear is that while the issues raised by Sound Women have been tackled to some extent, that does not mean that sexism in the radio and audio industry is over.

The medium still has a lack of diversity, and when I say this, I include sex, race and social background. I trust that their legacy will live on.

I received the email as I sat in a London radio and audio conference – the RAIN Summit Europe – in The British Museum. Overall I like this event, and there are a good range of speakers including some really excellent ones.

Notably Megan Lazovick of Edison Research gave a really good talk about in-car radio listening. It included some frighteningly dangerous footage of drivers explaining how they used their mobile phones to stream audio while in the car (coming in the week that a truck driver was imprisoned for ten years after killing a family while using his phone). But there was some really good insight into usage in the car.

Then in the afternoon we got entertaining presentations from David Cooper of Spotify and Sam Crowther of A Million Ads.

But there was also this.

Yes – that’s a NINE person panel for a session. And all nine, plus the moderator, are white men from around Europe. I’d tell you what it was about, but I practically fell asleep as it was as interesting as watching a supertanker conduct a turning procedure.

This size panel does not work. Panels are generally not great at conferences unless they’re incredibly well focused. You can’t have a meaningful discussion with this many people in the room.

And if you are going to have a massive panel, or even a small one, couldn’t you have at least found ONE woman?

My Twitter feed taught me a new word at this point: Manel.

I don’t think Sound Women’s job is quite yet done…